ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Were you in the Military?" Remembering Zigurds Zile, by Stuart Friebert.


"If so," the Great Clips stylist said, "we can offer you a dollar discount  thanks to new management's generosity!" Last time she cut my hair I'd have said a quick no, but my pal who survived Vietnam recently convinced me otherwise. True, for all five years while pursuing graduate degrees at the University of Wisconsin in the 50s, I'd enlisted in the reserves, but resigned in 1958 when I began teaching. My fluency in German had gotten me assigned to MI, i.e. a military intelligence unit, but that hardly constituted 'serving' in my mind.

"Hell, they could have shipped you out somewhere scary at any time," Blake grinned and saluted. "Besides," he went on, "they also serve who watch dumb films about how to crack safes, or threaten prisoners to get them to cough up useful info." After knocking back a few too many brews at his go-to Bar & Grill joint down the road, I'd blab about the mindless meetings we reservists were required to attend, capped by the requisite two weeks getting our butts drilled off summers at various army camps.

"Tell me again," Blake poked me when we ran out of other chat, "did you really get left standing alone when your unit to a man all got their sharpshooter medals?" Not about to cut to the chase, I ordered us another round, gently spun him around on the shabby stool, and retold the whole tale for the last time, I promised myself, of that Fort Leonard Wood summer. We first observed a moment of silence in honor of General Wood, a hero to Blake and me. Wood had commanded the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War and went on to win the first four ballots in the election to replace Teddy Roosevelt before Harding was nominated instead. "Here's to Lenny," we crooned, banging our beer cans together till the bartender wagged a finger.


A law student at Wisconsin, Zig, as he liked to go by, was older and wiser than the rest of us lowlifes in the MI unit. Atop a bear of a body, his head seemed able to swivel around in a circle so you couldn't get away with much. If you did mess up, put the unit at some risk – one's mistakes became everyone's in the eyes of most officers – Zig would take you aside, flash a wicked smile, stick his tongue in the space between his front teeth, and rattle off curses in Latvian. Then he'd hand you a little pocket dictionary in case you were curious about what he'd called your mother.

At Master Sergeant he was several ranks above us, and something of an aide to the lieutenant who presided over our monthly meetings.  Gently keeping us in line for the most part, Zig had to remind us at times that it was a privilege to serve any which way. "If you'd been born in Riga, and spent your wet-behind-the-ears years worrying about the Russians, then the Germans, then the Russians again, you'd keep the grumbling to a minimum," he'd say when we got on his nerves. "Try to stop feeling so god-damn superior," he'd resort to when our whining waxed.

Monthly meetings at the armory, presided over by the lieutenant who was finishing a PhD in linguistics, usually found us watching some ERPY film the army  hoped would prepare us for duty in the clandestine lane. At times we were assigned roles as prisoner and interrogator, which put an end to the yawning. When Zig played prisoner, given his early life behind enemy lines, we really shaped and sharpened up. A joker at times, Zig concealed a huge luger he'd carved out of basswood and drew at a testy moment. Even the lieutenant ducked. At Christmas Zig gifted us with little crèche animals he'd fashioned from the gun.


When orders arrived to report to Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri for our two-week stint of duty the summer of 1954, Zig offered to get us there in his jalopy. When he said we'd share the minimal expenses equally, hence could bank the rest of the travel allowance, three of us readily agreed. The other guys in the unit went by Greyhound bus, stopping off en route to see family here and there.

Researching the roads to Missouri, Zig decided we'd need at least two days to get there in time, absent any jalopy problems. "Set your watches, grunts, we're leaving 6 AM sharp two days after the semester ends," he said. Knowing I was courting a gal hard and would take off to her rental any break I had – she'd taken a job waitressing in Madison for the summer – he clowned, "Be sure to give her a sweaty kiss from me when you sneak into her digs at 5:30. Be late, though, and you'll get your own sorry self to Missouri or be court-martialed."

Madison was already heating up over 90, but we soon hit 100 degrees halfway down Illinois, when to save more of the travel allowance Zig decided to bed us down in a cornfield on a side road off the main highway. I can still sense the tip of the farmer's twelve-gauge, his dog growling at his side, when he prodded us awake. "Don't mind you boys squatting here for the night, ain't planted no seeds yet; but I sure as heck don't appreciate your vehicle digging me some ruts I don't need." When he pointed to Zig's jalopy we'd tried to get clear off the road, his dog broke free and circled it, barking his head off. When Zig plucked a dollar bill out of his wallet, the farmer cut him off. "Hell, kid, you look like you need that more than me. Just vacate the premises now," he said with a half-smile.


Arriving half exhausted, we were shown to our bunks in something of a Quonset hut, the air filled with dust motes. The sarge who'd be our minder flipped a quarter onto a sheet tightly tucked into the wooden frame. "No bounce no extra kitchen detail, unless you love peeling taters," he growled. Zig led us in a snappy salute, and off we trotted behind the sarge to our typewriter stations in central HQ. A stack of documents awaited us at each, and aside from pre-breakfast field drills, we spent the whole time poring over documents purported to have been retrieved from captured WW II German files and assorted recording-keeping books.

"Gentlemen, your job is to translate as many as quickly as possible as we are still building a case for any future legal action to be taken in the matter of war crimes," the lieutenant in charge intoned with some gravity. He also swore us to secrecy "for the foreseeable future." The way the brain erases most of a night's tumbling images, I soon forgot what I'd only just been feverishly involved translating the day before and no longer recall anything I read.

A few days before our tour was over, we were surprised to get a directive to report to the firing-range for "weapons-training," the order read. Zig thought there must be some mistake – other units from around the country were also assembled at the fort – and went up the chain on our behalf to a captain's office. He'd never come by to review us, but we'd been informed he was responsible for everything and everyone in MI that summer. Rumor had it he was a high school principal from Minneapolis, said to conduct assemblies with a baton, and loved pretending he was Dimitri Mitropoulis, then conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. "Yep," Zig shrugged, "means us, too. Something about every soldier must know from guns and bullets. Should have brought some ear plugs."

My father, to his great disappointment, hadn't been able to teach me how to shoot his beloved twelve-gauge shotgun. I'd learned to take it apart, reassemble it properly, clean and oil it religiously, but that didn't suffice. In something of a funk, I lagged behind the rest of our unit marching to the range till Zig looked back and pumped his fist. Demerits would cost us all.

Serious heat had us all soaking our shirts the first hour, when the sarge was finally satisfied we knew the front end from the stock of the M1 carbine we'd be using to hit the circular targets a hundred yards down range. Huge, bale-like doughnuts of straw, their surface was painted in bright red concentric rings leading to the tiny bull's-eye. "Now listen up," the sarge went on, "you will see a small circular green sign raised on a stick from a trench immediately below the target. It will move around to show you where, if at all, your rounds hit anywhere on the target. Under no circumstances should the next man down the line fire away until the indicator disappears. There is a human hand at the bottom of the stick, understood?" We all nodded in unison.

Stationed next to me, Zig whispered, "Just squat your eyes, it'll keep the sun to a minimum." After we finished our rounds, guys down the line from us were ordered to start shooting next. Making small talk while waiting for them to exhaust their rounds, we were suddenly jolted by a scream coming downwind from the trench at the target-site, whereupon a loud chorus of whistles silenced the whole firing line.  Hustled along in ragged formation, we were ordered to make double-time back to our barracks. Rumors abounding, it wasn't till the morning's drill-review that the captain finally stood before us, tersely reading from a bulletin, his hand clearly shaking.

All I recall him announcing was that someone, to our great relief not in our unit, had fired before the little green sign disappeared. The human hand raising the stick had strayed above the sight line and it was shredded so badly it had to be amputated.  All talk was hushed from that moment on till the closing ceremony two days later. The captain finished his remarks – how proud he was of all his troops, how fortunate we were to be Americans in the land of the free, blah blah and more blah – before reading off names of all who'd won a sharpshooting medal. "If I've read your name, step forward now!" he bellowed, pointing to us.

In the middle of the bridge over the Mississippi on our way back, Zig elbowed me in the side.  "You'll not soon forget the honor you brought to our unit. The only one not to have earned the SS, way to go, man!"


 Stuart Friebert's A Double Life: In Poetry & Translation, will  appear from Pinyon Publishing in the fall, in which this piece in Offcourse will join 7 other brief memoirs. Poems from previous  Offcourses will also be aboard. Black Mountain Press will publish Shadow  of Shadows: Selected Poems of Ute von Funcke in the fall as well, in which some translations published in Offcourse appear...

Return to Offcourse Index.